L. Ian Macdonald: What to look for in coming throne speech

After the cabinet shuffle, the throne speech is the next major item of business for the federal Conservative government as it tries to break out of a deep midterm slump.

The parliamentary session is scheduled to resume in mid-September, but the House isn’t expected to come back until after Thanksgiving in mid-October. At some point between now and then, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will prorogue and announce a date for the new session.

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Among other benefits of proroguing the House and pushing back the parliamentary calendar, the ministers involved in last week’s shuffle will have another month to learn their files without having to worry about the sound and fury of question period. Every day the House isn’t sitting is one more day the government gets to shape the agenda.

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister’s Office can quietly work the system for ideas for the throne speech. While this goes on below the radar, it’s a process that engages the entire system, ministers’ offices through PMO, and the public service through the Privy Council Office.

What Harper said in the 2011 campaign was that the country needed “a strong, stable national Conservative majority government,” but that doesn’t cut it for a throne speech two-and-a-half years later.

A throne speech is supposed to be a vision statement, but Harper isn’t comfortable with what the first George Bush famously called “the vision thing.” But if Harper wants to become a transformational prime minister, rather than a transactional one, the throne speech is his best opportunity to describe a view of the country and its role in the world.

A thematic starting point could be Canada 150 — or where would Harper like the country to be on the 150th anniversary of Confederation in 2017?

For openers, Canada’s books will be balanced by then, and Ottawa will likely be paying down the federal debt. This isn’t just a matter of a strong fiscal framework, it’s fundamental to the Conservative narrative and to the party’s base.

Ottawa has run deficits since 2008 because of the financial crisis and deepest recession since the end of the Second World War. But with the recovery — and one million new jobs since the recession — Ottawa is on track for a balanced budget by 2015.

Finance Minister Jim Flaherty has staked his reputation on it. And in the event he doesn’t run again, he’ll want balance to be part of his legacy.

Another file worth watching is the Canada Job Grant, which was announced in the March budget. This is the government’s bid to address the serious skills shortage in the Canadian labour market, which was characterized as a market of jobs without people and people without jobs.

Also requiring federal-provincial conversation is our future policy on clean energy. It’s been five years since Harper gave his London speech in which he predicted Canada would be the world’s next energy superpower. Here’s the challenging part — natural resources are owned by the provinces, but international trade is a federal jurisdiction.

At the Council of the Federation, the provinces are working on a Canadian Energy Strategy, but at some point the feds have to get involved in a leadership role. With more than 99 per cent of our oil and gas exports going to the U.S., and still no decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, Canada urgently needs to diversify its exports, notably to Asia. The only way to do that is move the product to tidewater in a sustainable and safe manner.

It isn’t Harper’s style to call a first ministers’ conference, but if he called for a clean-energy summit, he could be sure everyone would show up. First Nations would have to be part of that dialogue — for none of the pipeline projects will be built without their partnership and participation.

Harper’s conversation with Assembly of First Nations National Chief Shawn Atleo is one in which each is invested in the success of the other, and there should also be initiatives on aboriginal health and education in the throne speech.

A balanced budget, a jobs strategy, a clean-energy roadmap and movement on First Nations issues. Over to the PM’s writers.


L. Ian MacDonald is editor of Policy magazine.

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